Wildcats make last year's NIT loss ancient history

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The world tilted off its axis ever so slightly toward the end of last season when upstart Robert Morris spilled mighty Kentucky in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. Let the record show, UK avenged that headline-making setback with a 87-49 beat-down of the Colonials, who barely resembled the team that upset the Cats.

And these were not the same Wildcats, not by a long shot - the same sort of long shot Andrew Harrison threw in just before the half, from around 75 feet, only to see it waved off because he took an extra step. In fact, John Calipari started five freshmen, the first time in school history that five rookies opened a game.

That means each one of them was in high school during the festivities in Pittsburgh last year; they probably watched Robert Morris whip their future team, thinking, “Man, do they need me.”

And they were right.

All the new faces combined for 78 of UK’s 87 points and 39 of the
56 rebounds grabbed by the Wildcats as they pounded the visitors, holding the Colonials without a field goal for the first eight and a half minutes of the game. It was just the kind of feel-good victory Kentucky needed after the bitter disappointment in Chicago.

Aaron Harrison, who missed six of seven shots (including all five three-point attempts) and scored just three points in the loss to Michigan State, looked every bit the player John Calipari wants (and needs) him to be.

Harrison filled it up from inside and out, banging home four triples and hitting all 10 free throws in a game-high 28 points. And of course, earned a critique from his coach.

"You can't be energized because you're making shots,” Calipari said he told him. “You got to be energized because you're playing basketball."

Calipari spent part of the night playing air traffic controller as his team wrung points out of the transition game that never came against the Spartans. The smaller, slower Colonials couldn’t keep up as the Cats masterfully filled fast break lanes and found Julius Randle, Willie Cauley Stein and even James Young floating over the basket.

It was a display the Cats should be able to duplicate all season
long against some of the lesser teams on their schedule; the Louisvilles and North Carolinas (as well as Florida and Tennessee in conference) won’t be quite so accommodating. But this was just the second game of the regular season.

Kentucky apparently will bring the party at times with some full-court pressure, something Calipari said the Cats had been working on just this week. And why not? He has the depth, the length and the shot-blockers who can protect the rim.

Depth came in handy Sunday night as Calipari turned to his bench when he didn’t like what he saw at point guard. Andrew Harrison made some early mistakes and the first man in was not senior Jarrod Polson, but Dominique Hawkins, the freshman from Madison Central in Richmond.

Hawkins provided the same kind of pain-in-the-butt defensive pressure he used to help the Indians win the KHSAA championship on the same Rupp Arena floor.

Hawkins admitted to having stage fright in the MSU loss, saying he was surprised he saw early action against the Spartans. But he had an inkling he’d hear his name called on this night.

“This game I was a lot more comfortable, because I knew I was going to get some minutes,” Hawkins said. “I was able to play the way that I wanted to play, and the way I played was great tonight.”

Said Calipari, “I’m not afraid to go to him. I’m just not.”

That gives his coach yet another option – something he desperately needed last season, particularly when Robert Morris was busy setting the college basketball world on its collective ear in the NIT.

Calipari said he never watched video from that game, and never will. Why should he? That team is long gone – even the veterans who returned. Polson, who actually started against the Colonials last year, didn’t see the court in this game until the four-and-under TV timeout – in the second half.

Last year’s team also didn’t have the man-beast, Randle, who posted his fourth double-double in as many games, taking his place among former UK greats Jim Andrews (seven games), Dan Issel (five in two separate seasons), Cotton Nash (five) and Reggie Hanson (four) as the only other UK players who started a season with at least four DDs.

Randle finished with 10 points and 15 rebounds in 28 minutes; he also distributed bruises to the Colonials who, like practically every team in America short of the NBA, has no matchup answer for Randle. And yet, his teammates didn’t look for him enough, according to their coach.

“Here’s what I keep telling our team: If you go through him, they have to stop him,” said Calipari, who clearly wants to see more of the offense go through Randle.

He installed a press in three days. He has just one between this
victory and the next step in the Keightley Classic, Texas-Arlington on Tuesday night. Perhaps in that condensed amount of time, Calipari can convince the Wildcats to look a bit more for the freakishly talented freshman forward from suburban Dallas.

UTA might make the same commitment to stopping Randle that Robert Morris did. But if they do, the Mavericks likely will see more bombs from beyond the arc and lobs up over the rim. This Kentucky team Sunday night got a glimpse of what might lie ahead.

And it looks like fun.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio
Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)

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